Sunday, November 30, 2014

155. Five Steps to Sure Success for All Bunco Artists, Con Men, and Hoaxers

     These shores have seen multitudes of bunco artists and hoaxers, or as we would say today, con men.  Just think of all the verbs we have for cheating or swindling: bamboozle, hoodwink, humbug, hornswaggle, flimflam, diddle, fleece, con, gyp, sting, chisel – and probably lots more that escape me now.  And New York, being a mecca for hustlers, has had more than its share of flimflam artists.  Here, as I see it, are their five steps to sure success:

1.    Find something that vast numbers of people need, or think they need.
2.    Offer a product or service to satisfy that need.
3.    Through grandiose speeches and gestures, whip the people’s interest up to a fever pitch.
4.    Get their money.
5.    Satisfy their need, if you can.  But above all, get their money.

Now let’s see these principles in action.

1.  Find something that vast numbers of people need, or think they need.

     Nineteenth-century Americans, like most people then and now, craved health and well-being.  But the medicine of that time had little to offer beyond tender loving care (tlc).  There was a vaccine for smallpox and quinine for malaria, but not much else.  Which left the field wide open for patent medicine men and their nostrums.

2.  Offer a product or service to satisfy that need.

     Let’s have a look at New York City in the 1860s.  EXTRACT  OF  BUCHU  said handbills distributed throughout the city.  EXTRACT  OF  BUCHU  leaped off the signs of sandwichmen marching up and down Broadway, or off big-print posters on the sides of horsecars, or asbestos curtains in theaters, or piles of bricks at construction sites, or booths in public lavatories.  Or, more genteelly, off the pages of such popular publications as Godey’s Lady's Book and Harper’s Weekly.  Or, less genteelly, off the soaring basalt cliffs of the Jersey Palisades, greeting the gaze of passengers on the steamboats plying the Hudson.  And with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, EXTRACT  OF  BUCHU  adorned the telegraph poles along the line, and appeared on seemingly inaccessible sides of mountains in the towering Rockies and Sierras, to the surprise and instruction – or outrage – of travelers by rail.

     And what did Extract of Buchu do?  Said an ad of the time, it

·      Cures Gravel
·      Cures diseases of the bladder
·      Cures diseases of the kidney
·      Cures dropsy
·      Cures general weakness
·      Cures all diseases arising from exposure

To which was added  JOY  TO  THE  AFFLICTED, and a list of symptoms that included dimness of vision, languor, temporary suffusion, loss of sight, etc., which, if untreated, could result in insanity and consumption.  But there was hope:

With woful measures, wan Despair,
Low, sullen sounds of grief beguiled,
Health and vigor to the frame,
And bloom to the pallid cheek.

And all this for only $1 a bottle, or six for $5, deliverable to any address.

     Another ad called Helmbold a “Practical and Analytical Chemist” and showed Hottentots gathering buchu leaves in huge bundles addressed to the doctor in New York.  Another praised the Extract as standing “like the Doric column … simple, pure, and majestic, having fact for its basis, induction for its pillar, and truth alone for its capital.” 

     What, in fact, was this Extract of Buchu, and who was Henry T. Helmbold? 

File:Agathosma betulina - Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-020.jpg
Agathosma betulina
     The Extract was made of the leaves of the exotic buchu plant (yes, it really exists: Agathosma betulina), plus cubebs (also known as Java pepper), licorice, caramel, molasses, and a dash of peppermint.  Buchu was a plant growing in South Africa among the Hottentots, who had long used it as a medicine and cosmetic, rubbing the powdered leaves on their skin to impart a fragrance akin to peppermint.   It had reached this country by 1840 and was listed in the Pharmacopeia as a stimulant producing diuresis (in other words, it helped you urinate). 

     Henry T. Helmbold had begun his business career in his native Philadelphia as a retail druggist without even a degree in pharmacy and with capital, so he later said, of fifty cents.  His life changed one day in 1850 when, at age 24, he discovered buchu and, in a fit of inspiration, began producing his extract in a rented basement.  Advertising in local newspapers, he was immediately and even wildly successful and in 1863 transferred his genial presence from the City of Brotherly Love to the turbulent, growing, and infinitely exciting city of New York.

3.  Through grandiose speeches and gestures, whip the people’s interest up to a fever pitch.

     Let us join the crowds on busy Broadway on a morning in the late 1860s.  Among the flux of carriages, drays, stages, express trucks piled high with luggage, lager beer wagons, and milk carts with clattering cans, there suddenly appears a handsome barouche ornamented in gold and pulled by three high-stepping horses in tandem, the head of each adorned with violets.  Suddenly, at a command from the black coachman, the horses rear up on their hind legs together, a stunning sight to see.  Then, as the shiny black carriage approaches a palatial establishment at 594 Broadway, where crowds are waiting to witness its arrival, the barouche comes to a halt, and from its depths, attended by footmen in livery, steps a small, fashionably dressed man with a lustrous black beard and topped by a dark silk hat.  Nervous and energetic, he walks briskly toward the huge glass doors of no. 594, which open as if by magic to admit him to its sumptuous depths.  Henry T. Helmbold, king of the patent medicine men, has arrived at his Temple of Pharmacy.

     Yes, an obviously grandiose gesture, well calculated to seize the public’s attention.  But inside the spacious, high-ceilinged store the royal progress continues.  Passing uniformed clerks at their counters and attendants and bookkeepers and managers who greet him deferentially, the sovereign of the Temple of Pharmacy proceeds to the back of the store and a small private office with a sign above the glass door announcing SANCTUM SANCTORUM, inside which his desk awaits him, and a bust of himself in an exotic wood.  The door closes, silence; inside, the doctor is communing with his Muse, or whatever source inspires him in his tireless promotion of Extract of Buchu.

Helmbold's pharmacy at 594 Broadway.

     Always in pursuit of the grandiose, Dr. Helmbold (a self-imposed title) had spent a fortune building his Temple of Pharmacy, installing sarcophagus soda fountains, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, monogrammed gas globes, marble floors with his initials inlaid in brass, perfume-dispensing fountains, and canaries singing in their cages.  Atop the roof was a full-rigged ship, supposedly Helmbold’s own yacht dismantled and reassembled there, but in fact a dummy with masts, spars, and rigging.

     So “buchuful” an edifice on Broadway drew multitudes of citizens, among them such luminaries as Boss Tweed, robber barons Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, Commodore Vanderbilt (the richest man in America, known endearingly as “Old Sixty Millions”), John Jacob Astor III (there was a slew of moneyed Astors), and New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett.  Sightseers from the hinterland made a point of visiting the emporium, hoping as much to get a glimpse of the doctor himself as to revel in the luxury of his establishment.  In short, he dazzled the city and the nation.

4.  Get their money.

     He did, and in no small amount, for at the peak of his career he is said to have been earning a million dollars a year, and by 1869 he was spending $500,000 a year on advertising.  He lived in a residence at 156 West 14th Street (though some sources say Fifth Avenue), where his entertainments of the press and drug trade were catered by Delmonico’s.  His stable at 142 West 17th Street housed from 18 to 20 carriage and saddle horses, all Kentucky-bred.

     In 1868 Helmbold bought a summer residence in Long Branch, the nation’s summer capital frequented in season by President Ulysses S. Grant himself and members of his cabinet, and other stellar figures from the worlds of politics and finance.  Thereafter, the doctor’s elegant four-in-hand was at times graced by the cigar-smoking President himself.  But Helmbold also built a whole row of business houses on Ocean Avenue and Broadway, following which that location became known as Helmbold’s Block.  All in all, then, his was the life of a multimillionaire typical of the Gilded Age, but more flamboyant. 

5.  Satisfy their need, if you can.  But above all, get their money.

     Yes, he got their money, but did he satisfy their need?  Of course not, no more than any patent medicine man ever did.  In a signed affidavit he swore that his extract contained no narcotic, no mercury, or any other injurious drug, being purely vegetable in content.  So no one got genteelly high on his product, as they did on some other nostrums with a significant alcoholic content.  But even if buchu and cubebs had the medicinal value that tradition assigned them, there is no reason to think that Helmbold’s Extract of Buchu was in any way beneficial.  It did no harm, but neither did it do any good, except to Helmbold’s bank account.

     So much for Helmbold the con man, but there is more to his story.  One senses in his flamboyance, his grandiose gestures and fanatical promotion of his extract, a certain compulsiveness, even an obsession.  He became an alcoholic, though apparently a binge drinker who between bouts was rational and sane.  In 1871 he took his wife and children on a tour of Europe and the Orient, and in Paris on July 4, 1872, he invited all Americans in the city to be his guest at a reception said to have cost $19,000 for wine, flowers, and other incidentals.  Among the guests on that occasion was the Shah of Persia, who came to pay his respects.  But his lavish spending was accompanied by increasingly eccentric behavior and, finally, irrational outbursts of rage over the slightest trifles, and even an attempt to kill his wife.  As a result, the seer of buchu was confined to an insane asylum.

     Meanwhile back in America there was an attempt by his brother Albert L. Helmbold to get possession of his business.  What exactly happened is unclear, but on September 13, 1872, the free-spending Henry T. Helmbold was declared bankrupt, and the Temple of Pharmacy was padlocked.  In the words of an associate, Helmbold was “often crazy drunk,” and as a result he was declared insane and confined to an asylum, first in Paris and then, when he managed to return to this country, over here.  His brother Albert brought suit, claiming title to and use of the Extract, and furthermore alleging that Henry was a lunatic.  But in 1877 the Supreme Court of New York State denied Albert’s claim and found no hard evidence of Henry’s insanity.   In that same year of 1877 Henry, now at liberty, published a book entitled Am I a Lunatic? Or, Dr. Henry T. Helmbold’s Exposure of His Personal Experience in the Lunatic Asylums of Europe and America.  But the New York Times of May 2, 1878, announced in bold letters


     Obviously, Helmbold’s path back to sobriety was a long and tortuous one  with many relapses – seven, according to an associate – during which he was given to grandiose delusions, including the intention to get himself nominated as a candidate for President to run again Ulysses S. Grant.  But in 1881, when he was confined to a hospital in Norristown, Pennsylvania, his wife assured the court that he was perfectly sane and anxious to return to his family, having long abstained from alcohol and promised never to drink again.  In time, he was released.

     Even his end is a bit of a mystery.  According to associates, he died on September 12, 1892, at his home in Long Branch.  But a New York Times article of October 25 announced that he had died suddenly the day before in New Jersey’s State Asylum for the Insane, and that his body was at an undertaker’s establishment awaiting the orders of his family, who so far had failed to respond to the telegraphic notice.  All in all, an enigmatic and grandiose existence, hard to match except on the stage or in a madhouse.  But a forgotten one.  I have found no mention of him in The Encyclopedia of New York or Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, both of them voluminous sources.

     Should one include among the bunco artists and con men of nineteenth-century America the railroad men who, even as Helmbold was touting his Extract of Buchu, were busy promoting their enterprises?  Wall Street was usually where these schemes were hatched, but they inspired hopes and visions everywhere.  Let’s see how the promise of a railroad affected one small community some fifty miles north of New York City.  Here the emphasis will be, not on the often nameless promoters, but on the community itself, as recorded in old issues of the Putnam County Courier.

1.  Find something that vast numbers of people need, or think they need.

     In the mid-nineteenth century the village of Carmel, the county seat of Putnam County since the county's creation in 1812, found itself in the sorry state of being connected to the outside world only by stage lines, whereas the upstart village of Brewster, a mere five miles away, had mushroomed out of nowhere with the coming of the New York & Harlem Railroad in 1849, when a depot was built on the site.  Shrewd local speculators had bought up farmland, and on those lands houses, stores, and factories had sprung up, all made possible by the village’s connection by rail to that metropolis some fifty miles to the south.  In that exuberant age when the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 had spawned a host of railroad projects in the distant and desolate West, how could the citizens of Carmel not dream also of a railroad to connect them with the rest of the nation, and most specifically with the city of New York?  Here then was a potent need waiting to be fulfilled. 

2.  Offer a product or service to satisfy that need.

     In 1869 word came that something called the New York & Boston Railroad was projecting a line from New York City north to Carmel and then to Brewster, where it would connect with the New York & Harlem line.  This, citizens were told, was a grandiose plan conceived by some “big-brained men” who “meant business.”  Monkey business?  No, real business, as was explained in detail to a meeting of citizens in a hotel at nearby Lake Mahopac, another community to be served by the railroad.  There, on August 14, four directors of the railroad described the projected route and invited subscriptions of stock.  The chairman of the meeting was the Reverend William S. Clapp, a respected Baptist minister and the most prominent clergyman in the county, while financier Daniel Drew, the local boy who had made good on Wall Street, was in attendance and informed the railroad that it could run through any of his farms in the area free of charge.  No one present doubted the success of the enterprise.

     The question now was whether or not other landowners would follow Daniel Drew’s example and give the railroad right of way across their land, for if they failed to do so, the hoped-for railroad might bypass Carmel altogether – the fear that always haunted communities yearning for a railroad.  But soon the Putnam County Courier could report that seven-eighths of the local landowners along the route had given their land to the company, prompting the paper to announce, “Such liberality is without precedent in the history of railroads.”

3.  Through grandiose speeches and gestures, whip the people’s interest up to a fever pitch.

     The railroad men had no need of the grandiose gestures of Helmbold, for the mere promise of a rail connection to the outside world dazzled the good folk of Carmel, who whipped themselves up to a fever pitch.  Prominent in the campaign was the Courier itself.

4.  Get their money.

    The railroad’s demands were substantial.  It required no less than $100,000, a sum to be raised by subscriptions of stock.  Nearly half that amount had been raised by mid-November 1869, when meetings of citizens were being held nightly, and committees named to urge immediate action by those interested.  If the railroad was to pass through Carmel, the full sum had to be obtained, and obtained quickly; another $37,000 was needed, and yet some big local property owners were holding back.  “Now or never!” declared the Courier.  Then, on November 24, another meeting of citizens was held in a Carmel hotel, and a resolution was passed to pay the railroad the amount subscribed in 10% installments, each when another tenth of the work had been completed, an arrangement that suggests that the citizens’ enthusiasm was being seasoned with a touch of practicality, or even canniness.  Fortunately, the railroad agreed.

5.  Satisfy their need, if you can.  But above all, get their money.

     Early in 1870 engineers appeared in the vicinity of Carmel to make a final survey of the route.  Then, on February 14, ground was broken for the line in spite of a pelting rain.  Flags flew along the main thoroughfare and from the dome of the Ladies Seminary, and church bells rang.  Rain or no rain, a procession marching to the site included the Carmel Brass Band, clergy, orators, journalists, company officers, engineers and their instruments, stockholders and citizens, and railroad laborers with picks and shovels.  After a solemn prayer, the Reverend Clapp was chosen by unanimous vote to break ground and remove the first shovelful of earth.  The Reverend, a hefty gentleman with a bushy walrus mustache, was more than up to the job, following which the meeting was adjourned to his elegant carriage house, where food was provided to all, as well as speeches by the Reverend and others.  Finally, the soggy participants gave three cheers for the New York & Boston Railroad.  Clearly, Carmel’s dream was coming true.

     The Courier of September 10, 1870, reported that 80% of the railroad was now completed in Putnam County, but on November 25, 1871, a whole year later, it could only report that work was continuing, with the new line due to commence operation the following summer.  Meanwhile the railroad was undergoing a bewildering series of name changes, becoming the New York, Boston & Northern Railway in November 1872, and then the New York, Boston & Montreal Railway in January 1873.  Happily, the Courier of May 4, 1872, quoted an ad from the New York Commercial Advertiser of April 26 reporting that work on the line to Montreal was under way, despite opposite from Commodore Vanderbilt, aka Old Eighty Millions, who wanted no competition for his New York Central line.  “These are indeed gigantic schemes,” said the Commercial Advertiser, “but they are no grander than the times demand….  Only a little longer can an old fogy generation seal up this metropolis….  It is manifest destiny – you cannot dam up the Bosphorus – you cannot dam up the Empire City.”  So little Carmel would be linked not only to New York City but also to distant Montreal; manifest destiny indeed. is a name you can TRUST!
What the citizens of Carmel longed for and finally got.

     Work on the railroad suffered a long interruption when winter came, but construction resumed in May 1873.  On the morning of September 4 the shrill whistle of a locomotive was heard for the first time in Carmel, as a train arrived from Brewster, signaling the completion not of the whole line, but of the all-important segment linking Brewster and Carmel.  A direct connection between Carmel and all other important points on the line was expected by the summer of 1874, at which point manifest destiny would finally be fulfilled. 

     Alas, destiny received a rude jolt in September 1873, when failures on Wall Street precipitated a financial convulsion that would come to be known as the Panic of 1873.  Stocks plunged, trust officers vanished into fairyland, bankruptcies multiplied, factories shut down, railroads failed, thousands were thrown out of work, and the whole nation was plunged into a six-year depression.  By late November the Courier reported that all work on the almost completed railroad had ceased, with hopes that the suspension was temporary.  But when, in August 1874, the railroad’s treasurer came to Carmel and announced that work would resume shortly, the Courier confessed to a faint memory of having heard this before.  More rumors followed, and more reorganizations.  In 1877 the New York, Boston & Montreal Railway became the New York, Westchester & Putnam Railway, the grandiose project of reaching Montreal having mysteriously disappeared.  Whatever its name, the long-promised and much-delayed railroad finally opened on December 23, 1880, with the first train carrying six passengers and thirty-nine cans of milk – a modest enough achievement for a line once projected to reach all the way to Canada.  Still, Carmel at last had its rail connection, a mere thirty-one years after Brewster got the same.  Destiny had, after a fashion, been achieved.

     For a while.  When, in the 1970s, I began researching a biography of Daniel Drew and needed to consult county records and the Putnam County Courier in Carmel, no railroad could take me there.  Instead, I had to take the Harlem line to Brewster and then continue to Carmel by taxi.  How could this be?  The answer became apparent when, at 5 p.m., having finished my day’s research in Carmel, I was ready to taxi back to Brewster, and witnessed in the center of Carmel a traffic jam every bit as bad as traffic jams in New York.  The automobile had long since supplanted the railroad. 

     Should the “big-brained men” who promised a rail connection to Carmel and hit its citizens for thousands of dollars be classified as bunco artists and con men?  No, they really meant to build their railroad, and that railroad, when it finally began operation, was a tangible thing of iron and steel.  This, I suspect, was the case with most railroad promoters of those giddy times prior to the Panic of 1873, even if no track was ever laid.  If they were con men, they were conning not just the public but themselves, and that’s the worst kind of con there is. 

     And who are the bunco artists of today?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Off the top of my head I propose the following:

1.    Hedge fund managers
2.    Big Pharma
3.    The military industrial complex
4.    Psychiatrists
5.    Politicians

     #2 and #4 often work together, inventing all kinds of new syndromes that #2 can allegedly treat.  As for #3, all these wars that never seem to end.  And for #5, conning the public – and sometimes oneself – is an inherent part of the game.  Am I being cynical?  No, just realistic.  And what are our needs that these good folk promise to fulfill?  Wealth, health, security, a better life.  We will always crave these things, and someone will always be on hand to promise them.  And rarely, very rarely, someone will actually deliver.

     A New York vignette:  Last Sunday, as I was lunching in a little Indian restaurant on Bleecker Street, out the window I could see these establishments across the street:

·      Caliente Cab Co. / Tequila Bar
·      Kumo Sushi
·      Fish / Raw Bar / Fish
·      John’s Pizzeria / Since 1929
·      Ramen Thukpa

The cab company is, of course, a Mexican bar.  The first four are juxtaposed along Bleecker.  Ramen Thukpa, visible in the distance across Seventh Avenue, was for me a mystery at the time, but now, thanks to quickie online research, I know it to be a Japanese and Tibetan restaurant.  Once again, diversity.  And that is truly New York.

     One more touch of New York:  As I looked out the window while lunching, a panhandler stationed himself on the sidewalk outside.  He was a bearded older man in a jacket and jeans, wearing a tassel-topped knit cap that said NEW YORK.  He accosted passersby while flaunting a sign:


And he didn’t talk, though anyone who gave him some spare change was greeted with a smile and a thumbs-up.  At one point he noticed me watching from the restaurant and gave me also a smile and a thumbs-up.  I was going to give him something when I left, but by then he had disappeared.  There was a time when, like most people, I would have walked past without acknowledging him, but in my old age I’ve gotten soft; I’m now more likely to give than not to give, and to add a friendly “hello” as well.  But this is New York, so I’ll probably never see him again.  He looked authentic; I hope he’ll get some food and get home.

     WBAI and WNYC:  As followers of this blog know, I listen to both these listener-supported radio stations.  WBAI, having just failed to meet its goal in a fund drive, has immediately launched another fund drive – which is almost without precedent.  Soon it will have fund drives going year round, without interruption.  They are, of course, desperate.  Their loyal base of contributors is shrinking, and they’re constantly changing programs to hook more listeners, but so far it doesn’t seem to be working.  Some of the changes are good, but when you tune in, you have no idea what you’ll hear.  Last night I encountered a spiel for “neuro design engineering” and “transitional hypnosis.”  For a contribution of $150 you could be instructed in these mysteries, which will change your life.  In fact, you will be certified in them and can start your own consulting business charging $150 an hour.  Some of those participating have already snagged their first clients at that princely hourly sum – hurrah!  Which reminds me of those online ministerial schools that will give you a quickie ministerial degree allowing you to claim all the benefits of clergy – and there are many, including tax breaks – allowed by law.  When I’d heard enough of this exuberant spiel, I switched to WNYC, which is offering a series of very moving reminiscences by family members and significant others of all the pedestrians who died recently in traffic accidents in the city.  My personal conclusion: score one, and a big one, for WNYC.

     Coming soon:  Sotheby’s and Christie’s and Bunny and Andy, and Who Goes to Jail and Who Doesn't.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


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